The Grand Rapids Press Editorial Board/July 10, 2009
Editorial: Don't change role of community colleges
There should be compelling evidence to support the state fundamentally changing the higher education system.
State lawmakers should reject legislation that would allow community colleges to grant bachelor's degrees in certain fields. No convincing case has been made to support shifting the structure of higher education so dramatically.
Community colleges play important roles -- granting two-year degrees, offering a low-cost alternative for students going on to four-year colleges and universities, and serving as centers for worker retraining. They are helping to rebuild Michigan's economy. The Legislature should look to reinforce, not shift, that role.
Granting bachelor-degree status, even in a limited number of fields, would be a significant move that must be carefully considered. Once that door opens, there is the potential for adding more bachelor degree programs. That raises legitimate -- and consequential -- questions about competition with the state's universities, tuition, future need for more state funding and the impact on the current focus of community colleges.
Under legislation introduced by Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, the state's 28 community colleges would be in the position to offer bachelor degree programs in nursing, cement technology and culinary arts.
The nursing component is the centerpiece of the measure. Community colleges currently have the ability to offer an associate's degree in nursing and students can transfer to a four-year college or university for a more advanced degree.
Mr. Walsh says the changeover can help meet the state's growing need for nurses because the current four-year programs aren't able to adequately meet demand.
The recession has eased what's been a decade-long nursing shortage, but shortages are still expected in the next decade. However, the accommodation issue raised by Mr. Walsh isn't the only issue when it comes to why there is a need for nurses in Michigan and nationally.
Two major factors are a critical shortage of nursing faculty and a lack of clinical placement sites. These are factors community colleges would run up against, too, if they emerge from the arduous accreditation process successfully.
This legislation is by no means a quick fix to a complex problem. Lawmakers should weigh heavily other shortage issues and focus on quality and qualification, not numbers, when it comes to advanced degrees in this field. The other fields thrown into the mix -- cement technology and culinary arts -- are not driven by clamoring from employers or the community. There is no independent analysis supporting a huge demand for expanding the programs.
The legislation raises more questions than answers about allowing this bachelor's-granting authority. Time would be better spent assisting community colleges and universities to provide more seamless transition between the two, especially for nursing.